Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 1)

The prophetess Huldah answers the high priest Hilkiah’s questions about the Scriptures.  Was she allowed to do this?

It’s not difficult to read between the lines of my study guides (to Paul’s Journey Letters or to Paul’s Prison Letters, for example) and recognize that I believe there should be no restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers.  In the guides I acknowledge this as a question on which believers can legitimately differ, and I make every effort to explain both points of view so groups can discuss the issue amicably.  But I think my personal sympathies are probably pretty clear.

I’d like to make them even clearer here.  When a friend of mine saw this post in which Steve Holmes said that for him to defend the ministry of a woman like Phoebe Palmer “would be as ridiculous as a worm trying to defend a lion,” my friend commented how valuable it was for her to hear male biblical scholars affirming the ministry of women.  And so, particularly to encourage women who feel called to ministry, I want to add my own (male) voice in support of their calling.

In recent months, at the request of some friends, I’ve been blogging privately on this topic so we could discuss it together confidentially.  We’ve reached a point of resolution in our conversations, and so with their agreement, I’d now like to share my reflections publicly here.  The material from this formerly private blog is too long (17 posts, nearly 10,000 words) to appear in its entirely in this venue, so I’ll summarize it instead.  But I’ll provide links along the way to those fuller discussions, for those who are interested in pursuing specific points in more detail.  If you’d like to see it all (except for the original participants’ comments, which have been removed), it starts with this post.

Those discussion are more wide-ranging, but in these posts I’d like to focus more narrowly on the biblical statement that is most often taken to support restrictions on what women can do.  Paul writes in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”  Doesn’t that settle the question?

Actually, whether it does depends on what the Bible is and what we’re supposed to do with it.  If the Bible is essentially a collection of propositions, and if we’re supposed to isolate and collect these propositions in order to answer questions that we pose to the text ourselves about belief and practice, then this statement speaks pretty clearly and decisively to the question, “Should there be any restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers?”

Some further statements that apparently take the same position, although less explicitly, can be brought in for support (for example, “The head of every woman is man”).  Other biblical statements that seem inconsistent with this working conclusion can be accounted for somehow (“Deborah . . . was leading Israel at that time . . . and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided”).  But other passages aside, if we take this approach to the Bible, the statement in 1 Timothy is the definitive one that seems to settle the matter.

The problem is, the Bible is not a collection of propositions that we are supposed to isolate and collect in order to answer questions that we pose ourselves.  The Bible is instead a library of complete works, of greatly varying kinds, that as a whole tell the grand story of God’s initiatives over the course of human history to redeem fallen humanity, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  (Seen in this way, the Bible has many more questions for us than we have for it, starting with, “What are you doing to join in this grand story?”)

Because this is the true character of the Bible, no biblical statement is true or valid in isolation.  Each one appears in the historical and literary context of an entire work of literature, itself placed within a grand overarching story, and so no biblical statement makes sense in isolation.  If we really want to understand what Paul meant by his statement in the first letter to Timothy and what its implications are for us today, we need to situate it in its historical and literary context.  That is what I will seek to do starting in my next post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

12 thoughts on “Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 1)”

  1. My terminology is that the Bible is not composed of “atomic truth statements” as if it was a geometry textbook like Euclid’s Elements. That way is a complete misreading of Scripture, but it is sadly all too common, and it is very disrespectful of the Scripture that we actually have been given. When treated in that disrespectful way, the Bible becomes like modeling clay, shaped into whatever shape is desired by the author of the book, which is one reason we have so many denominations.

    1. Don,
      Yes, this is precisely the point I’m trying to make here. And I like your terminology: dismantling the Bible into discrete statements and then selecting and arranging them in answer to our own questions is indeed disrespectful of the form in which God has given his word to us. We pay a great deal of attention to the biblical languages as a key to meaning and we should pay equal attention to the literary forms in the Bible as a key to meaning.

      1. I call that “cut and paste” Bible dismantling. People think that by grabbing sentences or often just phrases they can not have to worry about context because it makes sense to them. And then they gather these snippets and make something out of them all together and call that a doctrine.

        I try to often point this out in my Bible group studies and teach Christians to look for the context before making quick conclusions. It really is amazing how often this is done. Another problem is that in some cases taking a phrase out of the context of the original author still does make sense and even speak a truth, although that is not the truth that the author was speaking of. In doing this the point the author is making is lost and this new true statement is inserted to the reading instead. So many Christians really do make a mess of the Bible.

  2. Excellent series and very well done…I am a former recovering staunch Evangelical Complimarian and this more than convinced me! I also think the statement “women will be saved through childbearing” is referring to the “circle of life” saying that God created Adam first and Eve came from Adam, but the woman brings forth all of humanity — and this is how she has redeemed herself. I so enjoy this Blog!

    1. Wayne,
      I don’t discuss the statement “women will be saved through childbearing” specifically in these posts or the background ones, but I think you’ve made a very intriguing suggestion. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, in the famous passage where man is described as the “head” (source?) of woman, that “as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.” So it’s quite possible that in 1 Timothy he’s adding that balancing thought as well when the talks about women giving birth. I will think carefully about this and no doubt incorporate it into further reflections and teaching on these passages. Thank you!

  3. @tiro3: A very good insight: We can take a phrase out of context and then engage with the meaning it has out of context (supplied by our own experience and circumstances). That’s very different from engaging with the original author’s meaning. One of my favorite examples of this was the site that used this quotation and gave this attribution: “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” — The Bible. You’d never know that this is what the Bible says we should do “if the dead are not raised”–which they most certainly are! So thanks for these cautionary words. Best wishes and God’s blessings on your Bible studies and teaching.

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